If you needed a reminder about the state of American politics in 2018, the exchange between former Vice President Biden and President Trump this week summed things up nicely.

Biden, in a Miami speech, said Tuesday: “They asked me would I like to debate this gentleman, and I said no. I said, ‘If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”

PlaygroundRulesWashDC_fixperspectiveTrump tweeted on Thursday: “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!”

Biden should reply that he’s rubber and Trump is glue. Or to Trump’s description of him as crazy and weak, he could say: “I know you are but what am I?

All of this, while the stock market teeters, a trade war looms, unprecedented amounts of debt are being downloaded onto the U.S. economy, and Congress can barely agree on a budget.

It does make you wonder whether Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un might devolve into a mud wrestling match.

Trump is often compared to Nixon, but Nixon had a baked-in respect for the American system of government and a sense of public decorum.

In his History Unfolding post Saturday, historian David Kaiser noted: “Like Trump, Nixon was a narcissist who could not accept any opposition to himself personally or to his policies. He too felt the need to vent his hatred on almost a daily basis. But Nixon had grown up in an era in which bright young men understood that they had to make a good impression on their elders, and keep their nastiest feelings to themselves. In public he almost always maintained an iron self-control, and his aides collaborated in keeping his inner self away from the public.”

But “Trump, on the other hand, grew up while his contemporaries were joyfully tearing down traditional emotional restraints, as well as restrictions on language, clothing styles, and what could be seen and heard in movies and on television. He built his persona on unrestrained excess, and when he entered politics, he built his appeal around unrestrained hatred, free of any code words.”

To put this into additional perspective, imagine a similar discussion between Kennedy and Nixon in the lead-up to the 1960 presidential election.

Suppose Kennedy said he would have beat up Nixon in high school, and then Nixon replied that Kennedy was “weak, both mentally and physically” and that during a fight Kennedy “would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.”

And this would have been reported on the evening news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. They would have had to cut to a Lucky Strike commercial after the clip to figure out what they were going to say next.

American public opinion would have sent Nixon back to clerk at his father’s grocery store in California and Kennedy would have been lucky to get a job organizing yacht races.

Ditto for Nixon-Humphrey, Carter-Ford and Carter-Reagan.

But that was then and this is now, when Americans relish public figures who “tell it like it is.”

All of this could get pretty interesting if Biden runs against Trump in 2020. But if that happens, don’t bother holding the first debate at a university. Have it on a playground.

Playground rules via Wikimedia Commons

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